GREEN VALLEY - Continental School first-grader Makenzie Vernon comes from a bilingual household, but it wasn't long before she began favoring English over her first language, Spanish.
"I want to speak like my dad," she told her mother, Marisol, one day, somewhat to her dismay.
"I was shocked at how fast she was forgetting Spanish," her mother said.
When a letter arrived from school while her daughter was still in kindergarten asking about Spanish immersion, she knew what to do.
The school was thinking of offering the half-day program to first-graders, for students whose primary language was, or in Makenzie's case was becoming, English.
"I thought it would be nice for her to pick Spanish up again, communicate with my side of the family," Marisol said. "Being bilingual, I've found is very beneficial in the workplace and in school. I would like Makenzie to take advantage of the opportunities."
She signed her up.
Nearing the end of her first year in formal Spanish training, Makenzie can read a book and carry on a conversation in Spanish.
"I like that," her mother said. "I like that she knows the language I know."
In just a school year of daily afternoon immersion class, Makenzie and her 17 classmates in teacher Lina Szabo's room greet their teacher, classmates, visitors, listen to stories, assignments and play learning games all in what was a foreign language mere months ago.
They're going beyond learning colors, numbers, phrases and vocabulary words to lessons in math, social studies and science, all en español. They study in English all morning with their homeroom teachers, who work as a team with Szabo to make sure there are no curriculum gaps.
At times, an immersion student might forget to use Spanish, such as in the excitement of blurting out the answer to a math equation, but in a recent two-hour session, not more than a few words of English were heard. Gestures and word sounds are a big part of it. Rolling the r's, practicing vowel combinations.
It's helping develop self-confidence, too, observers are noticing.
Continental School Board President Bill McNarie, a retired educator, is one. He comes every Tuesday to read aloud to the kids in Spanish. It's not his first language, but it improves with every book, which he studies for a week.
He marvels at the enthusiasm and energy of Szabo, an eight-year teaching veteran at Continental and a Spanish-speaker herself. She happily agreed to try the class when Superintendent Virginia Juettner asked.
"It brings the ego down," he said with a laugh. "Very politely one girl raised her hand one day and asked, 'How many more pages?' "
He achieves the goal, which is for the kids to listen for recognizable words. The first year, the expectation isn't fluency but participation and the rudiments of understanding.
Having outsiders visit brings in the world, provides mini-lessons and helps with visuals.
They share things from travels such as postcards and experiences. Sonoran-born classroom volunteer Maria Flores, 75, visits three days a week, and a new reading program is helping the students read in Spanish via the Internet.
A field trip to a Tucson performing arts center exposed the students to dance, verbal translation and culture.
At the beginning of the year, some students arrived reserved, quiet, shy, even fearful, but as time went on and the routine got more comfortable, they opened up.
Even the shyest before is now saying hello. One girl did nothing but shrug when first addressed by the teacher. Now she it's "Maestra, hola," Szabo said. "It's all about exposure."
The effects spread outside school as well. Makenzie is more social, especially with Spanish speakers, her mother said.
In a play area at the mall, she'll start a conversation with other Spanish speakers and before long, is playing right along with them.
Makenzie's classmate Matthew Chase initially came home from school talking about the teacher he couldn't understand. A handheld computer with an app that translates English to Spanish helped.
"Now he's a motor mouth," his mother, Laura, said. "I felt that in this day and age, he should know Spanish."